If injuries provide any silver linings, it’s the game-changing innovation that’s often inspired and implemented following our worst physical moments. One of the most notable examples is ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction — otherwise known as Tommy John surgery — named after the former All-star pitcher who was the first to undergo the procedure on his throwing elbow in 1974 and has since saved the careers of countless pitchers and athletes.
In the weightroom, setting a new PR can at times lead to an iron-induced trip to the ER. It’s why in these fitness-frenzied times, the industry’s best minds continue to look for ways build a better mouse trap, or in the case of Kabuki Strength, a better trap bar, or squat bar or any other type of ergonomically superior equipment that will allow both elite athletes and average joes to continue pushing heavy iron while avoiding unnecessary injury-causing wear-and-tear joint stress.
The brains behind Kabuki Strength are a pair of powerlifting titans, Chris Duffin and Rudy Kadlub. The deadlifting duo have found a way to capitalize on their decades of both setting world strength records and compiling debilitating injuries to help rethink and revolutionize weight training. In their own strength lab, they’ve developed products that they believe have proven that both traditional strength training and safe technological advances can form a beneficial training partnership.
“Literally, it’s been inspired by either injuries or pains that we would suffer through the training process,” Duffin admits. “The whole concept was to be able to look at strength training from the lens of understanding how the body should be working through these issues and how we can create equipment that accommodates.”
And the need for couldn’t come at a better time for safety to be a priority for both commercial gyms and home products. Due to the pandemic, home equipment sales spiked by nearly 170 percent between 2019 and 2020. At the same time, so did injuries, increasing by nearly 50 percent, as 37,522 people were hurt at home from exercise-related activities.
Duffin, who once held Guinness World Record for the most weight deadlifted in one minute at 17,010 pounds. He’s also admittedly suffered multiple herniated discs, had three muscles torn completely from the bone, along with several what he calls “career ending-type” injuries. Alleviating some of the shoulder pain that kept him up at nights led to his creation of the company’s first breakthrough — the mace-like ShouldeRök.
Soon after, strength coaches from most pro leagues began taking notice of Kabuki’s pitch of safer strength, and quickly began noticing weightroom gains after incorporating Kabuki equipment, including its popular item, the Duffalo bar, which they bill as a safer approach for both squatting and benching, as well the Kadillac Bar, which has allowed for pain-free bench pressing, and now its latest all-in-one Transformer squat bar.
Kadlub, meanwhile, began powerlifting at age 55, and has gone on to set more than three dozen records. And at age 72, he set an unofficial deadlift record with a pull of 518 pounds, all this after having shoulder replacement surgery several years prior. Kadlub says he owes his continuous progress at an advanced age to the change in equipment.
And now, as the new year approaches and fitness fiends and novices begin looking to become bigger, stronger, better, Kabuki wants you to stay healthier. It’s why its mission for commercial gyms and home gym seekers is to push for a move past the old-school straight bar to added safety while still increasing strength.
“Unless you’re a barbell athlete, there’s no reason to train with one,” Kadlub says, “especially if you want to preserve your health and be able to move well into your mature years. Now is the time for us to educate the rest.”
Kabuki Strength Origins
Duffin and Kadlub’s first order of business from their Oregon headquarters in 2014 was self-repair. The two created a “strength lab” to bounce ideas off one another while doing what they enjoyed most: moving heavy weight. Duffin, an aerospace engineer also known as the “Mad Scientist,” would create some unconventional power prototypes in his machine shop, handles with different angles, in order to lessen any stress on their joints.
“Literally, we just wanted to refine the tools and training so that we could be the best that we could be to be the best in the world,” Duffin says. “And so I started building the equipment because that’s literally my background.”
It wasn’t until 2015, with the popularity of the ShouldeRök taking off that Duffin decided to become “employee No. 1” and go all in with expanding Kabuki.
Kabuki’s next breakthrough: a bar to reduce bench press wear and tear in the shoulders most people encounter. The Duffalo bar, featuring a curved center, which allows for proper joint alignment and reduces rotational demand on the shoulder. This tweak, they say, helped lead to Improved scapular retraction and lat engagement in the press and squat.
“We had strength coaches telling us how they couldn’t even take a bar to their chests anymore because of shoulder surgeries,” Duffin says. “I’m like, try it. And they were like, it feels good. Then just like, they started putting more weight on, and the next thing you know, they’re working their way up to 225 for a few reps, while everyone on the staff is standing around stunned.”
Today, about a dozen employees make up Kabuki, all of whom bounce ideas off one another while training at the facility in Clackama, OR, about 12 miles southeast of Portland. As “chief visionary,” Duffin heads up the group of like-minded muscleheads.
“We’re so passionate about this self improvement and and aspect. And so we have that culture, and then we have that external culture, we’re so involved with our community to get the feedback as well.”
Converting The Old-School Pros
Along with coming up with creative ideas in the lab, Duffin and Kadlub say they also listen to feedback from their loyal customer base. One example is Kabuki’s redesigned trap bar, created after suggestions for an easier way of loading and unloading weights kept filling up Kabuki inboxes. Now, its Trap Bar HD features its own built-in bar jack to allow easy and back-friendly loading and unloading.
And now with its transformer bar, an adjustable, multi-functional barbell allowing for 24 different squat variations — from front squats to goblet squats to back squats to safety bar squats. It’s now in pro and college weightrooms nationwide.
“Chris and I will always ask the head strength coach to bring us one of their weaker squatters, and we’ll put them under the transformer bar,” Kadlub says. “And all of a sudden they’re squatting more upright and squatting deeper and it’s like, wow!”
Still, even with their message of shifting to safer squatting, Duffin and Kadlub admit eliminating the straight bar completely is impossible, especially when it comes to competition and even Olympic moves like cleans and snatches. Modifying how and when, however, is the message they’re sending to those heavyweight hardliners who insist that old school is the only method.
“We get those segments who have been doing it for a while and are a little resistant,” Duffin says. “They’ll still say the old way works for squats, deadlifts, benching. But if you say, hey, just try this out, and they experience how it feels and the reduction of pain to the extent you can add more volume and train more frequently, then you start getting some converts.